Daytona put to work again after accident at track
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Not long after a horrific crash caused carnage in the main grandstand of Daytona International Speedway, workers swept in to hurriedly make repairs.
Rest assured, NASCAR’s biggest race will go on.
The green flag is set to drop Sunday for the Daytona 500 less than 24 hours after a last-lap crash injured at least 30 spectators and ripped apart a chunk of fencing that protects the mammoth seating areas at stock car racing’s most famous track.
Large chunks of debris, including a tire, landed in the stands after Kyle Larson’s car launched into the fence about 200 feet from the finish line during a race in the second-tier Nationwide series.
Speedway President Joie Chitwood declared the track will “be ready to go racing,” and there were no plans to move fans who have those same seats where the wounded were strewn about Saturday.
This was the third time in four years the track has needed major repairs on Daytona 500 weekend. The 2010 race was interrupted for more than two hours because of a pothole in the track. Juan Pablo Montoya slammed into a jet dryer in last year’s race, igniting a raging inferno that caused another two-hour delay.
“We’re very confident that we’ll be ready,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s senior vice president of racing operations. “As with any of these incidents, we’ll conduct a thorough review and work closely with the tracks as we do with all our events, learn what we can and see what we can apply in the future.”
Chitwood said there where wasn’t enough time to replace a gate in the damaged section of fencing, which allows fans to walk from the grandstands to the infield. Otherwise, it might be difficult to find any evidence of where the wreck occurred.
The speedway president stressed that all safety protocols were met, perhaps preventing a more tragic result.
“Our security maintained a buffer that separates the fans from the fencing area,” he said.
NASCAR and track officials didn’t know how much fencing would need to replaced or repaired. Sections of the impact-absorbing soft walls had to be fixed, too.
But the track’s recent history with expediting repairs was expected to speed along the process.
“You try to prepare for as much as you can,” NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said. “You also take away and learn from every incident.”
The horror in the stands marred what had been a week of celebration that kicked off with Danica Patrick becoming the first woman to win a pole in the premier series.
Wreckage flew into both the upper and lower decks, and emergency crews treated fans on both levels. There were five stretchers that appeared to be carrying fans out.
A forklift was used to pluck Larson’s engine out of the fence. There was a tire in the stands.
Across the track, fans pressed against a fence and used binoculars trying to watch. Reporters were ordered to leave the area.
Hours after the wreck, the fence was down and soft walls were being repaired as TV news helicopters hovered above the track.
Elsewhere, it was business as usual as the track underwent its makeover for “The Great American Race.” The stages for driver introductions and the pre-race concert were already in place, as were the generators on pit road. The Daytona 500 logo was being painted on the grass and other track signage got a touch up. If not for the steady buzz from the welding done on the fence, it would have looked like any other late Saturday night before the 500.
Fans seated in the area of the wreck uploaded videos on YouTube that showed fans fleeing in horror and covering their heads as tires and an engine hurled their way. Most of the videos were soon removed from the video-sharing site.
NASCAR chief marketing officer Steve Phelps said the removal was ordered “out of respect for those injured. Information on the status of those fans was unclear and the decision was made to err on the side of caution with this very serious incident.”
The scene was similar to a 2009 race at Talladega Superspeedway — Daytona’s sister track in Alabama — when Carl Edwards’ car went sailing into the fence on a last-lap accident.
O’Donnell said NASCAR and track officials would continue to strengthen safety standards as needed.
“We’ll evaluate the fencing and see if there’s anything we can learn from where gates are,” he said. “I think we need to take the time to really study it and see what we can improve on, if we can. Certainly, the safety of our fans is first and foremost and we’ll make that happen.”